Don’t expect campus life to ‘return to normal’

It’s time to move forward

Ana+Pietrewicz+%2F+Daily+Collegian

Ana Pietrewicz / Daily Collegian

By Catherine Hurley, Collegian Columnist

Everyone has heard the news. The University of Massachusetts plans to “return to normal operations in fall 2021.” This means students can expect to take classes in-person, live in full capacity residence halls and participate in events and activities. UMass plans to offer students a “full college experience.”

This sounds great. After living and taking classes at home for more than a year, I’m excited to get back on-campus and take advantage of whatever UMass has to offer. But I’m not getting my hopes up for normalcy, and I don’t think you should either.

There are endless unknowns about what the fall semester will look like. Although COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts are going down and vaccination rates are going up, it’s difficult to predict exactly where we’ll be in August. Social distancing, wearing masks and regular testing may still be part of UMass life this fall depending on state guidelines.

Then, there’s housing. This year, many students, especially upperclassmen, were not able to choose the on-campus dorm that they wanted, if at all. In a normal, pre-COVID semester, more upperclassmen would live off-campus, freeing space for other students to choose their desired dorm. When thousands of students miss out on a year on campus, the demand to make up for seemingly lost time increases, and some students are left scrambling for alternative living arrangements. UMass expects to house 13,000 students this fall, and who fills those beds is unimportant so long as the money is coming in. But for students who planned to pick up where they left off, the inability to find housing is a reminder that life is moving forward, not returning to normal.

Pretend for a moment that campus life ends up being normal after all. Classes are in-person, social events are in full swing and COVID-19 precautions and restrictions are minimal. Even in that ideal scenario, you are not the same person who walked out of UMass, or high school, in March 2020. You have changed; your friends have changed, and it’s unrealistic to expect that those relationships will pick up right where they left off. There is going to be a readjustment period that is different than your typical post-summer, back-to-college experience. This fall is going to present new challenges, especially for students who are arriving to campus and taking classes in-person for the first time.

This year will one day be a defining marker in people’s lives. Shouldn’t it be an opportunity to reexamine how things were before and ask ourselves, do we want to return to normal?

For many students, taking online or asynchronous classes has allowed for flexibility that was not previously available. It’s easier to schedule classes around a job, internship or other responsibilities when you’re not obligated to arrive in person. Even though this mode of instruction does not work for everyone, it should be a more widely encouraged option for students looking for an alternative to the traditional college experience.

For UMass, a return to normal likely means a return to a normal grading system, meaning students will not be able to take more than one class per semester pass/fail. This reversal will be a terrible mistake. The spring 2021 policy allows students to take up to three classes pass/fail, except for prerequisites. The option to take classes, including major and general education requirements, pass/fail eases the academic burden that falls on students, pandemic or not. Much has been written about the drawbacks of pass/fail grading, especially for students pursuing medicine or graduate school, but the benefits to the student body at-large are undeniable. Academic performance does not necessarily predict career or personal success, and there is no better time to implement policies that reflect that.

Rather than “return to normal,” UMass should strive to move forward toward a post-pandemic world. Life will not be the same as it once was and failing to acknowledge these changes is a disservice to students.

Catherine Hurley can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @cath_hurley.